Almost everybody has a glass of wine now and then. To the average person, not much thought goes into it. Some people like wine; some people don't. I was one of those people that never paid much attention to wine. I could distinguish between what I thought was good or not-so-good wine.
On occasion, I'd have a glass of wine that I thought was really good. Slowly I started paying more attention to wine. I've also always liked the idea of things that improve with time. And a few times someone shared with me, wine that was several years old and I began to understand more about how diverse and complex wine can be.
My more substantive interest in wine came about as a result of several things. First, I got ahold of some really great wine. Most people have not really tasted world-class wine. The stuff you usually get in the grocery store, and even most stuff in specialty shops is all of marginal quality. This doesn't mean that good wine is more rare or expensive. It's just that if you don't know what to look for, a consumer is lost in a sea of mediocrity and has a slim chance of understanding how great wine can be. Once I crossed that threshold, I was fascinated.
I don't mean to get pretentious or philosophical, but I can't deny that wine is an excellent metaphor relating to the pursuit of happiness. There's something about finding enjoyment in something as seemingly trivial as a glass of fine wine. Many wine connoissieurs would agree that their interest in wine is symbolic of their desire to appreciate and pay homage to the art of craftsmanship, the love of nature and its bounty, a celebration of the complexity and diversity revealed in a most simple form, and most importantly, the ability to seek pleasure in the moment.
Most of us are so caught up in our lives and pursuits that we often miss the beauty that is around us. There is something very therapeutic about being able to identify the brilliance and satisfaction is something that might seem otherwise mundane. And the irony is that wine and everything about wine, is anything but mundane, which teaches us all an important lesson. If you can't find something that gives you pleasure right now, regardless of your circumstances, you're probably not easily going to under any circumstance.
So in my case, my interest in wine has helped me appreciate more. It's made me slow down some and enjoy the moment. I've found that other people who are into wine have these similar traits. The process of attempting to be a more informed wine consumer has expanded my knowledge of cultures, geography, chemistry, biology, economics, politics, linguistics and more. It's a lot of fun.
What put me over the edge in my pursuit of wine, turning me into a "collector", happened when I ended up building a secondary server farm for one of my businesses. This required that I fill a room full of computer equipment that needed to be temperature-controlled. I thought to myself, since I had to spend the electricity to keep this server room at a constant, cool temperature, and I had plenty of extra space, I could also store wine there.
So I picked up a little wine rack at Pier One and would buy a few extra bottles whenever I found a wine I liked. But of course, the more you get into wine, the more good stuff you find, and the more you want to explore and experiment. Originally I set about sampling all the different styles and regions, focusing on trying to figure out what I liked. Then later I started zeroing in on particular wineries and vintages. Wine is a hot commodity. If you find something good, you need to grab it fast, because a week later, it might be gone. I started to enjoy the "hunt", discovering what was good before it was too well known, and stocking up.
Needless to say this snowballed. I found myself needing more and more room. I also came into this hobby right about the time the 2000 Bordeaux vintage was being hailed as one of the best years for wine ever. The problem is good Bordeaux needs to sit five or more years minimum before it's really at a stage where it can be appreciated, so I set out to find the best wine at the best price and stock it away so that in the future, I'd have a nice cache of great wine I can share with friends.
Part of the appeal of this pursuit had to do with a realization I had about time and perspective. When you're young, time seems to move so slowly and you look forward to the future. As you get older, people tend to sense time moving by more rapidly, and often reflect back to the past and less to the future. As one ages, less enthusiasm is spent on the rewards the future brings. But with wine, it's exactly the opposite. It's one hobby that renews or at least helps offset a typical feeling that the future isn't as exciting as the past or present. So when I often think that I'm not where I'd like to be and time is my enemy, I can seek some solace in knowing that with my interest in wine, time is a friend, and brings some excitement.
As is typical with me, I don't do anything half-assed, so once I got into wine, I totally lost it. But hey, why not! My collection started with a few cheap bottles from the supermarket to over 1100. From mass-marketed stuff to primo vintages from top Chateaus. In my cellar you'll find stuff you can pick up in the supermarket, along with superlative examples of some of the finest grapes ever fermented. But what's most satisfying about my collection is that I can show people that there is a difference and redefine what they thought was homogenous.
At this point, even with as much wine as I have, I still consider myself a neophyte. It might seem like I have a ton of wine, but most of it is young Bordeaux and Southern Rhone, which is something I have grown to enjoy, but most of it needs to sit for several years. I reasoned that with the 2000 vintage being so renown, I could pick up a lot of low and mid-priced wines and store them away for future enjoyment. That's what I've done. I got great deals on wine early, so while I may have a lot of wine, it's not a huge assortment of the most recognized wineries. However, that is the big secret of wine: You can find excellent wine at any price point if you know what to look for. I have wine that I paid $9 a bottle for that will blow away $200 bottles.
That notwithstanding, I have also endeavored to pick up many great classic wines. And thanks to very generous friends, have sampled amazing wines that I would neither be able to acquire nor afford. My greatest pleasure is in sharing a truly great wine among great friends.
So, what's in my collection and what do I like? Do I have any advice for others? Absolutely.
First and foremost, don't assume that what the critics like you will like. Everybody has their own tastes. It can be entertaining to at first try to calibrate your palate to what critics call excellent wine, and generally speaking most of the critics are useful in helping to steer you to appreciate the difference between what is and isn't good, but ultimately, you'll focus in on certain styles that personally appeal to you.
Generally when you talk of "fine wine", it's pretty much a given that we're talking about red wine. There are great white wines and variants, but red wine is the classic wine that ages and is celebrated. 99% of my collection is red, and most of it is composed of Cabernet-based styles with an ever-growing array of Italian varieties and Syrah/Shriz.
Before I get to far into this, let me give you a little "Wine 101". There is so much to know about wine, but one important characteristic that will help jump-start your understanding of wine is to know the difference between "old world" and "new world" wine and how wines are labelled. There are tons of variations but here are the basics:
Wine is a very localized product. The taste and style of wine is more tied to where it was made, than by whom. The region where a wine is made dictates the type of grapes, soil, weather conditions, and regulations under which it is produced. Generally speaking, if you know where a wine comes from, you can get much more of an idea of how it will taste than from its brand. Cabernet from Chile is completely different from Cabernet from France.
Wine is very serious business all over the world. In many countries such as France, Spain and Italy, the government aggressively regulates the industry, dictating how wine is produced, bottled and labelled. In Germany for example, regulators determine the shape of the bottle and color of the glass based on the style of wine.
One simple way to understand the industry and its products is to note the distinctions between Old World and New World wine. This connotation generally refers to countries and regions which have different approaches to the production and regulation of their wine industries.
Old World generally refers to the earliest wine-producing regions, such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain. New World is associated with newer entrants in the industry including countries/regions such as the United States, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and Africa.
There are tons of exceptions but to make this simple, I'm going to generalize to help you understand. Old World wine is usually more-tightly regulated than New World wine. This doesn't mean that Old World wine is better. It just means that Old World wine is more controlled when it comes to how it is made and labelled. In most old world countries, there are specific designated levels of quality. You can't call your wine "Barolo" unless it comes from a specific region and has been aged at least three years before being released. A "Chianti Classico" is aged less than a "Chianti Classico Reserva".
In the New World, there aren't as many restrictions with respect to wine production or labelling. In many New World countries, calling your wine "Reserve" is arbitrary, and doesn't necessarily mean the wine is produced a certain way or is in any way superior to a wine from the same area which doesn't have that designation.
Another major difference is that in the Old World, wine is most prominently identified by the region from which it is produced. Wine from the Old World usually bear the name of the region/city/village (otherwise known as an "appellation") from which they originate: Bordeaux, Chianti, Burgundy, Rioja, Marsala, Madiera, Sauternes, Barolo, Champagne, etc. In the New World, most wine is identified by the main type of grape from which it is made: Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Shiraz, Pino Noir, etc.
The key to finding wine you like lies in understanding how wine is labelled, which forces you to understand the differences in how wine production is regulated throughout the world. As you learn about the regions, you find out what types of grapes grow there and how they vary. So if you like Merlot, you will come to realize that Bordeaux from the Right Bank (right side of the Gironde river) is planted with more Merlot grapes, but if your tastes lean more towards dry Cabernet-style, regions on the Left Bank in Bordeaux, such as Haut Medoc will be more to your liking.
In my opinion, the most distinctive characteristic of wine is based on the type of grape(s) used. The second most important distinction is the region, which specifically will relate to the flavor of the grape. Weather and soil have dramatic effects on how grapes are produced. The region also determines, especially in the old world, the methods by which wine is produced and labelled. After these factors comes the winery and vintage. However, these characteristics are constantly juxtaposed. Bad weather can make a bad vintage, which can have more of an averse impact than any other quality. But at the same time, truly great winemakers can consistently produce outstanding wines, but there will always be variations in quality due to factors beyond their control.
Some people also generalize that there are differences in the approach to what is considered a good wine between the old world and the new world. Nowhere is this more obvious than the comparison between the most popular winemakers in France and California. Where France goes for subtlety, California tends to produce more "fruit forward" wines that are sweeter and have more intense up-front flavor. Many wine connoisseurs lean towards one camp or the other, some preferring the class and smoothness of the Old World, with others favoring more ripe California styles that are drinkable earlier and posess less of the ability to improve with age. However, there are some California wines that are made in the Old World style that in great vintages can challenge even the masters in Bordeaux, such as Opus One and Chateau Montelena.
It is also worth mentioning that New World wines are starting to adopt more old-world traditions by labelling their wines based on region (Sonoma Valley, Stags Leap, Napa Valley, etc.) but there is still much less regulation and consistency in the New World.
As for me, I like full-bodied, dry wine. I seek out wine that can be best appreciated on its own, as opposed to being paired with food. I'm a big fan of the "old world" wines: French & Italian mostly. The old world wines are more subtle and classy IMO. They don't overwhelm you with frutiness, sweetness or are dominated by specific flavors. The most-renown wine in the world comes from France's Bordeaux region, and consists primarily of a combination of three grapes: Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
France also produces great wines of almost every genre. Excellent Syrah-based wine can be found in the southern region (Syrah is also known as Shiraz). The most famous region for this type is called Chateuneuf Du Pape. I'm also a big fan of Barolo from Italy, but unfortunately due to how strict this winemaking process is, it can be quite expensive.
It would be difficult for me to list my favorite specific wines because this is constantly changing upon new discoveries. Sometimes you can get a bad bottle of a great wine. Sometimes a top winery will product a horrible vintage. It's all very personal. Some wine is drinkable right now, but after time, it might lose its magic.
There are lots of misconceptions about wine. The most significant of which is the impression that the quality of wine is directly proportional to its price. It is a myth that if you pay more, you can be assured you'll get better quality. There are many $20 wines that you could insert into a blind tasting of $100+ wines that would rank very high even among the most accomplished wine taster.
Another misconception is the assumption that fine wine is mostly a specialty of the rich and affluent. In my experience, while the "rich and famous" like to use fine wine as a symbol of status and taste, most of them don't have much of a clue. These people base their purchases more on popularity and reputation than they do quality, knowledge or experience. In much the same way rap stars popularized marginal products like Couvousier and Crystal (which are considered crap among those in-the-know), there are far better wines to be found than the likes of Chateau Latour or Mouton-Rothschild in many years. Status-symbol brands don't mean much to those who know more. That's not to say that some world-renown wines aren't worthy of their reputation. Chateau Lafite-Rothschild is usually a truly incredible wine. But there are also hundreds of other lesser-known wines that can boast similar quality levels and are often priced much less. And therein lies the addictive fun of wine collecting: finding those values.